Art

Let This Man Keep His Toilet Gardens

A man in Potsdam, New York has fought for years for his right to display toilets full of flowers on his properties.
06 July 2020, 2:51am
a white toilet outside next to a tree and on top of dirt and grass; inside the bowl are red flowers
Photo by Gary Clark via Getty Images

In the town of Potsdam, New York, a fight over toilets has waged on for years, as members of the town butt heads over a man's "toilet gardens." Yes, you read that correctly: toilet gardens. Scattered across a lot owned by Frederick "Hank" Robar Sr., you might find a collection of porcelain commodes planted firmly in the dirt, each bowl blooming with flowers.

According to the Watertown Daily Times, which has held the throne on Potsdam's toilet garden coverage for years, Robar created his first toilet garden in 2004 as a form of protest after the town denied a zoning change request that would have allowed him to sell the plot of land to someone who wanted to put up a Dunkin' Donuts. These so-called "potty gardens" are so local a quirk that they've earned a listing in Atlas Obscura's map of odd destinations (as of this writing, 84 people have marked an interest in visiting), and a toilet tied to a pole and filled with flowers decorates a "Greetings from Potsdam" T-shirt that's currently listed for $25 on eBay (a missed opportunity to make a Pottys-dam joke, however).

The town of Potsdam is not quite as pleased with the installations, but per the Daily Times' reports, local officials have historically been unsuccessful in, yes, "unseating" Robar's toilet art. In 2008, after receiving a ticket for a code violation, Robar argued that because they were art, his display was protected by the First Amendment; however, the case was dropped after the code enforcement officer "failed to bring documents to the court." Another attempt to put an end to the potty garden in 2010 was dismissed "after the presiding judge resigned amid cocaine-use allegations."

In 2015, the Daily Times reported that the town was targeting and replacing "ugly" properties, including ones Robar had sold to nearby Clarkson University the previous year. In 2018, Potsdam passed a stricter anti-junk law aimed at limiting "what cannot be in view of drivers on local and state roads in the village." According to the village administrator, the law wouldn't just affect Robar but also "unkempt college apartments and homes." To this, Robar had asserted that his toilet gardens were not junk, but art—with the toilet basin "flower pots" replaced after any sign of damage—and that not only would he never remove them, but he would get a lawyer and take the town to trial again if needed.

But perhaps in a welcome reprieve from the rest of the news, Potsdam residents find Robar and his toilet gardens in the headlines again. As the Daily Times reported yesterday, the town had a meeting to discuss Robar's code violations at seven properties. Per code enforcement officer Liza A. Newby, Robar's toilet gardens constitute a prohibited "accumulation, display, or outdoor storage of junk," and her recommendation is for "each and every toilet and bathroom fixture" to be removed "immediately." Not only had she seen Robar tidying the toilets after receiving his appearance ticket earlier this month, she stated, but he'd added yet another toilet to one of his properties.

Newby is not Potsdam's only toilet garden hater, though: David B. Acker, CEO of the Potsdam-based St. Lawrence Health System, told the town's Board of Trustees that the toilets—and the lack of junk-related code enforcement associated with them—complicate the town's appeal for young doctors looking to stay and settle down.

The argument Robar's lawyer, Mark Snider, is making is that the law was written to target Robar, and that "we may be in the process of violating Mr. Robar’s right to protest, his freedom to speak freely, his freedom of expression, his idea of what is artistic whether it be your view or mine or anyone else’s." This won't be the last of the toilet conversation for Robar (or the Daily News), however: According to the paper, the trustees will discuss the issue in another meeting next week.

To this we must say: There is so little levity left in the world right now, and what really is "junk," anyway? One man's trash is another man's toilet garden, as this saga has certainly proven, and what is the year 2020 if not a giant toilet? At least here, in the town of Potsdam, there's hope for a flower to come from it, instead of nothing but endless crap.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.